It’s difficult to know what to say about “Fruitvale Station.” It’s a simple film, straightforward in its progression and motives and message, and yet the emotion it stirs is anything but. It wasn’t made with the intention of drawing parallels to recent incidents involving young black males shot to death despite no wrongdoing,, and yet the comparisons are almost begging to be made.
The one thing that is certain is that “Fruitvale Station” is a very powerful film, one that demands to be seen and discussed.
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer following an incident on one of the trains. Oscar died hours later at an Oakland, Calif. hospital.
The shooting incident is harrowing in its suddenness. It was unprovoked and done while Oscar was in handcuffs, lying face down on the train station platform.
This information is not the opinion of the screenwriter or taken from the way the director framed the incident. Rather, the film’s opening moments show video footage (taken with a cell phone) of the actual incident. It’s an unexpected move, and one that could have easily come across as exploitive, but instead feels wholly appropriate and even necessary. It serves as the perfect – yet stark – reminder of just how real this incident was.
The risk of putting together a film like this is that it can be easy to whitewash the person at the center, to make them out to be a martyred saint. “Fruitvale Station” doesn’t do this. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Oscar was a troubled young man. He was irresponsible (we learn he’s been fired from his job at a grocery store for consistently showing up late). He’s been in jail, has a temper and he sells drugs.
But he’s also trying. Trying to get his life back on track, trying (and succeeding) to be a loving father and son. Trying to leave behind his drug dealing days.
In short, writer/director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan (as Oscar) present us with a character that is complex and is communicated honestly. There’s no denying his problems, but there’s also no avoiding the fact that his death could have been avoided.
Avoided by whom? Well, that’s the other interesting bit of complexity at play here. I appreciated the way Coogler subverts our expectations of which cop will ultimately shoot Oscar. Kevin Durand plays a gruff, domineering BART officer who is first on the scene after a fight breaks out on the train between Oscar and a former fellow inmate (with whom he had run ins while imprisoned). Our expectations of how rotten cops who shoot unarmed civilians should/do act immediately color the situation, thanks to Durand’s performance. “Surely,” we think, “this is the guy who’s going to shoot and kill Oscar.” After all, he’s calling Oscar offensive names, shouting at him and roughing him up and arresting Oscar and his friends for no good reason.
And yet it’s the quiet, clean cut, pretty boy cop who ends up firing a single shot into Oscar’s back. (The officer was ultimately charged with first-degree murder but was sentenced for involuntary manslaughter as he claimed his mistakenly grabbed his pistol instead of his Taser.)
Coogler doesn’t lay the blame on any one person’s shoulders. Ultimately, as the film presents it, this was simply a horrible situation filled with poor decisions on all sides. No, the cop should not have arrested these guys nor used excessive force. But at the same time, justified as though these young men may have been in doing so, mouthing off and acting surly toward police officers is never a good idea.
The backbone of the film is Jordan’s performance as Oscar. I’ve been a fan of Jordan since he portrayed Wallace in HBO’s “The Wire” (still one of the best shows ever made, for the record) and it’s been satisfying watching him slowly come into his own. This is a quiet performance and it’s the opposite of showy (which means he’ll be all but ignored when it comes time for awards season), but it’s as solid an anchor as one could hope for. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer (as Oscar’s mom) reminds us that her Best Supporting Actress Oscar wasn’t a fluke.
Coogler never draws parallels to the Trayvon Martin case (even if it seems impossible not to have that incident linger in the back of the mind as you watch the film). His intent, I think, is simply to get people to talk and discuss and think. And really, that’s the most important thing with “Fruitvale Station.” There are massive issues at play here, issues that demand examination and thoughtful discourse. Hopefully this film can inspire more of that.